An off-season traveler covers his ears and endures the racket
I live in Manhattan, where we have noise instead of scenery, so when I travel for pleasure it's always to a quiet place. Recently, before two weeks of work in Milan and Paris, I flew to Sardinia for the weekend. It's known as a refuge of wilderness in populous Italy, and I imagined, deep in its off-season, shepherds tending flocks, gulls calling, and shutters creaking on deserted shops and villas. Dropping down over the mountainous green island that D. H. Lawrence called "lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere," I was thrilled to see flowering fields and white beaches. For the next few days, I told myself, I would go unshaven and unhassled, disconnected from the clamorous, aspirational, urban world.
In a rented Fiat, I hit the winding road to Porto Cervo, on the Costa Smeralda. Out my window, the same sea that took Odysseus to the island of the Lotus-Eaters, where he did nothing but enjoy life's quiet pleasures, was about to cast a spell on me. Italy always delivers. I was very pleased with myself.
But then I arrived in Porto Cervo. Now, I knew that the Costa Smeralda had already been developed into a landscape of luxury hotels and condominiums not so gently tucked into the rocky coastline. So I didn't expect another world, entirely. I just didn't expect more noise than in Manhattan. Outside my room at the Cervo Tennis Club Hotel, the only hotel in the village that was open in late winter, a squadron of construction workers was building a new conference center. They had hammers. They had jackhammers, even. And they had a big, looming crane that whined sort of the way I'm whining right now. Closing the windows didn't help. I set out for a walk.
On the edge of the deserted village, I found a little dock at the beach. I kicked off my shoes and collapsed in the sun. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, the loud rat-a-tat-tatting of a machine gun in slow motion started up on the hillside across the harbor. I fled again. But I was in pursuit of something that didn't exist: even the cliffs outside town sounded like a war zone. Porto Cervo, someone finally explained to me, was getting ready for Easter, when vacationers would hear nothing but the wind, the sea, and one another. And me?I was hearing all the things that would make their Brigadoon possible. I spent the rest of the afternoon driving instead of walking. That way I was making noise, not just listening to it.
This wasn't the first time sound has gotten in the way of my vacation. In Trinidad, I was naïve enough to think that you actually sleep during Carnival. On Block Island, in high season, I once booked a room in a shingled inn that turned out to be next to the airport. Then there was Vieques, off Puerto Rico. It wasn't the U.S. military bombing maneuvers across the island that bothered me. It was the barking dogs, boom boxes, and children with firecrackers behind the charming house I'd rented. Oh, and the mangoes. Every few minutes, one would drop onto the corrugated tin roof. Boom. I had to choose between losing my mind or my security deposit, so I opted for the latter.
A reverence for quiet, of course, is nothing new. Shakespeare wrote that "truth hath a quiet breast." Robert Frost stopped by woods on a snowy evening. And Wallace Stevens, in "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," likened a summer night to "a perfection of thought," and noted that quiet was "part of the meaning." I'm with him, although I make exceptions for distant cowbells, rustling palms, rain, chimes in the morning (after nine), and tree frogs, as long as they're not overdoing it.
Where does my particular obsession come from exactly?A therapist might tell me it indicates a compulsive need for perfection in an imperfectly noisy world. He might even tell me that it's extremely narcissistic to expect the world to simmer down in my presence. If he did, I'd probably tell him to be quiet.
One easy solution to the problem is earplugs. I recommend the squishy foam variety. They're comfortable and very effective. But they're also a little sad, I think—an admission of defeat, at least on vacation. Which brings me to another way to get quiet: get enlightened. When you're enlightened, you just acknowledge the noise and let it go. Of course Buddhism, the let-it-go religion, is supposed to function as an answer to the question of human suffering, but sometimes it comes in handy on vacation, too. After driving until dark around the winding Sardinian coast, I got back to my hotel room ready to sleep, but the construction was going overtime. I went out to eat calamari at the only open spot in Porto Cervo. The restaurant was blissfully quiet. After dinner it was quiet on the streets, too. As I walked, I heard crickets and my own footsteps. At the deserted dock I heard nothing but water lapping while the stars huddled overhead. Somewhere in the hills a dog was barking. I could hear myself breathing, I could feel my soul opening up, and for those few minutes I was finally content.
The next day, after construction noise woke me, I gave up. On my way to the car I was struck by the hotel's beauty and its spectacular view of the Mediterranean, and wondered if I was being ridiculous. Then, that slow-motion machine gun started in the harbor, and I knew I wasn't. "Qué es aquel ruido?" I asked another guest, who looked at me suspiciously, probably because my question—"What is that noise?"—wasn't even in Italian. But hey, I doubt he heard me anyway. In Italian, by the way, the word for noise is rumore. It might come in handy on your next vacation, but I hope not.
Bob Morris is a frequent contributor to the New York Times.